COMMENT: Military aid to Ukraine won’t solve anything

By bne IntelliNews September 18, 2014

Mark Adomanis in Washington -


Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko openly called for the US to supply Ukraine with arms in an address to Congress on September 18. "Ukraine needs lethal and non-lethal assistance. "We can't win the war with blankets. And we can't keep the peace with blankets," he told a joint session of Congress, in an impassioned and eloquent speech. "Democracies have to stand together – or they will be eliminated one by one."

Poroshenko will certainly find a ready audience willing to listen to his pleas for arms. Although the Ukraine conflict is currently at a standstill and a highly imperfect ceasefire appears to generally be holding, the past several weeks have seen ever-louder calls in the US and Europe to provide lethal military assistance to Kyiv. These calls have been especially vocal from the more conservative sides of the political spectrum in the US, where the advisability of military support is considered self-evident.

As this column is being written, the Senate Foreign Relations committee is debating legislation written by Robert Menendez and Bob Corker that would substantially escalate US assistance to the Ukrainian military. Among the $350m worth of aid being considered are kit such as counter-artillery radars, surveillance drones and anti-tank weapons. If enacted, Menendez's bill would be an enormous escalation from the paltry amounts of body armour and MREs that the US has offered so far. And the Senate isn’t alone in its enthusiasm. Just the other day the House of Representatives passed a resolution that, while short on specifics, also mentions the advisability of additional military assistance to Ukraine.

While it’s not yet certain, it does appear likely that the US will soon be sending a sizable quantity of military hardware to the threadbare Ukrainian army. The domestic political pressure to respond to Russia’s actions in Ukraine in a way that is seen as “tough” is overwhelming, and few dare resist for fear of appearing “pro-Putin” or “pro-Russia.” If Menendez’s bill makes it out of the Senate, for example, there is no way that President Barack Obama, who met Poroshenko in the Oval office on September 18, will veto it.

There’s one problem with the growing consensus, however: military assistance to Ukraine won’t solve anything.

No defence

In comparison to Russia, Ukraine faces a gap in defence capabilities so enormous that it is difficult to exaggerate. According to data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the best source of data for comparing defence spending, in 2013 Ukraine’s total military budget was a mere 6% of Russia’s ($5.3bn versus $87bn). And that is just the headline spending figures. While Russia’s military industrial complex is obviously not free of corruption, evidence suggests that the levels of graft inside Ukraine’s Yanukovych-era army reached truly pharaonic proportions: billions upon billions of dollars from the (already paltry) defence budget simply vanished into thin air.

In the early weeks of the crisis the Ukrainian army was so desperately short of money and fuel that it had to resort to a public fundraising drive. Getting Ukrainian military capabilities to a level at which they would present a reasonable deterrence to Russia would take assistance orders of magnitude larger than anything being proposed by Menendez (or anyone else inside the Beltway). To put it bluntly, in order to be even a rough match for the Russian army, Ukraine would need at least $5bn per year in additional defence spending. The Ukrainian economy can’t come up with that kind of money, and the West isn’t going to either.

In the meantime, though, the only thing that military assistance will accomplish is the following: it will make Ukrainian leaders somewhat more willing to risk the renewal of a military conflict that they will not be able to win. Military aid would prolong an already bloody and catastrophic conflict, and risk even further escalation from Russia, which has made it abundantly clear that it will do whatever it takes to prevent a battlefield defeat of the rebels in eastern Ukraine.

If the West really wants to help Ukraine, it should provide generous long-term assistance to restructure the economy. For various political reasons this won’t actually happen, but Western economic assistance could accomplish quite a lot of good if done in the right way. Buying the Ukrainians new tanks might feel like it’s very “serious” and “tough,” but it is actually the worst of both worlds: it wastes increasingly scarce Western resources, while simultaneously limiting the crisis to narrow military terms where Russia possesses an unassailable advantage.

There are no easy answers in Ukraine, no quick fixes to a situation that has spiralled out of control. One thing is clear, though: military aid will do nothing to resolve the conflict and is very likely to enflame it. Keep that in mind once Menendez’s bill is passed.

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